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Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul
by Karen Abbott

Published: 2007-07-10
Hardcover : 356 pages
12 members reading this now
22 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 1 members
Step into the perfumed parlors of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history–and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation. Operating in Chicago’s notorious Levee district at the dawn of the last century, the Club’s proprietors, two aristocratic ...
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Step into the perfumed parlors of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history–and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation. Operating in Chicago’s notorious Levee district at the dawn of the last century, the Club’s proprietors, two aristocratic sisters named Minna and Ada Everleigh, welcomed moguls and actors, senators and athletes, foreign dignitaries and literary icons, into their stately double mansion, where thirty stunning Everleigh “butterflies” awaited their arrival. Courtesans named Doll, Suzy Poon Tang, and Brick Top devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. Whereas lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot’s earnings and kept a “whipper” on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and even tutored in the literature of Balzac.

Not everyone appreciated the sisters’ attempts to elevate the industry. Rival Levee madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the Everleighs, including an attempt to frame them for the death of department store heir Marshall Field, Jr. But the sisters’ most daunting foes were the Progressive Era reformers, who sent the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of “white slavery”——the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. This furor shaped America’s sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, including the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

With a cast of characters that includes Jack Johnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, “Hinky Dink” Kenna, and Al Capone, Sin in the Second City is Karen Abbott’s colorful, nuanced portrait of the iconic Everleigh sisters, their world-famous Club, and the perennial clash between our nation’s hedonistic impulses and Puritanical roots. Culminating in a dramatic last stand between brothel keepers and crusading reformers, Sin in the Second City offers a vivid snapshot of America’s journey from Victorian-era propriety to twentieth-century modernity.

Visit www.sininthesecondcity.com to learn more!

Praise for Sin in the Second City:
“Assiduously researched… [Sin in the Second City] describes a popular culture awash in wild tales of sexual abuse, crusading reformers claiming God on their side, and deep suspicion of the threat posed by “foreigners” to the nation’s Christian values.”
——Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Lavish in her details, nicely detached in her point of view, [and with] scrupulous concern for historical accuracy, Ms. Abbott has written an immensely readable book. Sin in the Second City offers much in the way of reflection for those interested in the unending puzzle that goes by the name of human nature." — The Wall Street Journal

"Abbott's first book is meticulously researched and entertaining... a colorful history of old Chicago that reads like a novel."
——The Atlanta Journal Constitution

“With gleaming prose and authoritative knowledge Abbott elucidates one of the most colorful periods in American history, and the result reads like the very best fiction. Sex, opulence, murder — What's not to love?”
—— Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

“A detailed and intimate portrait of the Ritz of brothels, the famed Everleigh Club of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Sisters Minna and Ada attracted the elites of the world to such glamorous chambers as the Room of 1,000 Mirrors, complete with a reflective floor. And isn’t Minna’s advice to her resident prostitutes worthy advice for us all: “Give, but give interestingly and with mystery.”’
—— Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City

“Karen Abbott has combined bodice-ripping salaciousness with top-notch scholarship to produce a work more vivid than a Hollywood movie.”
—— Melissa Fay Greene, author of There is No Me Without You

Sin in the Second City is a masterful history lesson, a harrowing biography, and - best of all - a superfun read. The Everleigh story closely follows the turns of American history like a little sister. I can't recommend this book loudly enough.”
—— Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng

“This is a story of debauchery and corruption, but it is also a story of sisterhood, and unerring devotion. Meticulously researched, and beautifully crafted, Sin in the Second City is an utterly captivating piece of history.”
—— Julian Rubinstein, author of Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


Knowing Your Balzac

“If it weren’t for the married men we couldn’t have carried on at all, and if it weren’t for the cheating married women we would have earned another million.”

Pulled or prompted, men came to the Everleigh Club. They came to see the Room of 1,000 Mirrors, inspired by Madam Babe Connors’s place in St. Louis, with a floor made entirely of reflective glass. In Minna’s eyes, this parlor paid bawdy tribute to Honoré de Balzac’s The Magic Skin—a mirror with numerous facets, each depicting a world. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

• The Everleigh sisters were technically criminals, yet they genuinely believed they were helping the girls in the Club. What do you think about the Everleigh sisters’ business practices? Why were they so successful?

• Did you identify with either Everleigh sister? If so, which one? How are Minna and Ada alike, and how are they different? Who was the stronger sister, in your opinion? How were they able to perpetuate so many lies for so long?

• On the surface it seems that there are only two sides in Sin in the Second City—the reformers and the sisters—but there are actually a few more: the politicians, the Levee gangsters and the rival madams. Who are the heroes in Sin in the Second City, and who are the villains? Who did you sympathize with? Did you find your loyalties shifting at any point along the way?

• At the time the Everleighs ruled Chicago, what other choices did women have? Did you judge the women who became “sporting girls”? Did you judge the madams? What path do you think you would have chosen if you’d been alive during the turn of the century?

• Sin in the Second City follows the careers of two reformers, Ernest Bell and Clifford Roe. How were Bell and Roe alike, and how were they different? What do you think motivated each man? Whose tactics were more effective? Do you think they exaggerated or accurately represented the “white slavery” situation?

• At one point, the boxing champion Jack Johnson shows up at the Club, and his presence becomes quite a commotion. What did his visit tell you in terms of race and America at the turn of the century? And was the Levee different from the rest of the country in this regard?

• How did America’s sexual culture change during the Everleighs’ reign? Who was primarily responsible for these changes, the reformers or the underworld?

• Chicago is as much a character in Sin in the Second City as the gangsters and the madams. Why do you think the Everleigh sisters chose to settle in Chicago? Would they have been as successful in another city, or was Chicago particularly conducive to their success?

• Many reformers cited strong religious convictions as a reason for fighting the red-light districts. How do you think the religious tenor of the times compares to that of today?

• The politicians in Sin in the Second City argued that the segregated vice district was necessary to protect “respectable” neighborhoods and “respectable” women. Do you agree with their reasoning? Or with the reformers’ belief that the Levee needed to be destroyed entirely?

• Aside from the reformers, there were others in the Levee who were trying to take down the Everleigh sisters. Madams like Vic Shaw and Ed and Louis Weiss. Why, do you think, were the Everleighs able to so successfully foil their attempts?

• The Everleighs had very strict rules when it came to their clientele, yet they admitted their fair share of eccentric characters. What was your favorite Everleigh Club anecdote?

• What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like Sin in the Second City that can’t be from novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?

• What is the total picture of early 20th century America that emerges from Sin in the Second City? How is that time both like and unlike contemporary America? What are the most significant differences? In what ways does that time mirror the present?

• Neither Everleigh sister had a serious relationship during her adult life. Do you think they chose to remain unattached? If so, why?

• Abbott stumbled upon the story of the Everleigh sisters while researching a long-lost relative. How much do you know about your own family’s history and ancestry? Do you know where they were and what they were doing from 1900 to 1911, when the Everleigh Club was in business?

Suggested by Members

Did you feel the motives of some of the religous leaders and politicians and their furvor to deal with the "white slavery issue" was more for power,career building, control and with their publishing books for money or a true concern for the girls?
by mcomai (see profile) 07/10/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A note from Karen for BookMovement members:

In 1905, a woman named Katherine Filak said her first and final goodbye to the red-roofed cottages and soaring church spires of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and boarded a boat to America. Twenty-one years old and a devout Catholic, she prayed about what lay ahead: work as a domestic and abuse from strange neighborhood men, who tricked her into reciting English curse words. She raised six children, my grandmother among them, and experienced a heartbreak not uncommon to immigrants at the turn of the last century. A sibling, who accompanied her on the trip from Europe, ventured to Chicago and was never seen again.

This sibling’s disappearance became her lone defining trait—my great-grandmother, I’m told, refused to speak of her—and over time I’ve imagined this lost relative’s face, retraced unknown steps, filled in the blanks of her life by probing the city that might have taken it. Chicago in that year experienced a particularly brutal crime wave; not since a mild-mannered killer stalked the grounds of the 1893 World’s Fair had its citizens experienced such fear. “A reign of terror is upon the city,” declared the Tribune. “No city in time of peace ever held so high a place in the category of crime-ridden, terrorized, murder-breeding cities as is now held by Chicago.”

The daily tallies of muggings, rapes and homicides were troublesome enough, but a new threat—unfamiliar, and therefore especially menacing—prepared to creep through Chicago. Young girls stepped from trains into a city steeped in smoke and sin—a “stormy, husky, brawling” city, as Carl Sandburg so affectionately wrote—and vanished without warning or word. Stories abounded, growing more detailed and honed with each retelling. Predatory men met these girls at depots. They professed love at first sight, promised work and shelter and protection. Instead these girls were drugged, robbed of their virtue by professional rapists, sold to Levee madams, and dead within five years.

Most of the brothels in the city’s thriving vice district were indeed wicked, block upon block of dingy, anonymous, 25-cent cribs, but one, in remarkably short order, became as well known as Chicago itself. I never learned the truth about my missing relative, but instead discovered two women, Minna and Ada Everleigh, whose pasts were even more intriguing and mysterious.

SIN IN THE SECOND CITY tells the story of the Everleigh Club and its iconic madams, their libertine clients and bitter rivalries, and their battle to preserve the empire they so lovingly built. I want to stress that this is a work of nonfiction; every character I describe lived and breathed, if not necessarily thrived, on the Levee’s mean streets.

Before opening their world-famous Club, the Everleigh sisters, too, were girls who disappeared, and they reconstructed their histories at a time when America was updating its own. To that end, this book is also about identity, both personal and collective, and the struggle inherent in deciding how much of the old should accompany us as we rush, headlong, into the new.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Sarah T. (see profile) 12/18/17

  "Sin In The Second City"by Maureen C. (see profile) 07/10/12

The members in our book club all enjoy Chicago and found it interesting to learn more about the history of Chicago. We all agreed that the "creative non-fiction" approach provided a more interesting read... (read more)

  "Sin in the Second City"by Tamie P. (see profile) 01/08/10

  "The book is very historically based. The topic was entriguing and the author did not take liberties with telling the actual story as was supported by fact."by Andrea N. (see profile) 05/27/08

After completion, I had to reflect on the book for a few days before formulating an opnion because it was different than I expected. It read more like a history text with a lot of facts but little character... (read more)

  "Ignore the star rating - I give it a 3 1/2!"by Kerry D. (see profile) 05/23/08

It is evident that Ms. Abbott did a lot of research and was very careful to be accurate in her account. However, this approach is exactly what makes the book a bit unsatisfying. There is no real protagonist... (read more)

  "It was okay."by Pamela S. (see profile) 04/07/08

Our club is in the Chicago area and wanted to pick a book about Chicago. It was an okay read. We thought the narrative was somewhat choppy and the information, while interesting, was not a "page-turner."... (read more)

  "Very interesting book about sordid Chicago past."by Rachel F. (see profile) 09/21/07

I love Chicago's sordid and interesting past. It is filled with so many eccentric characters, and this book presents many of those characters, particularly the Everleigh sisters. While rea... (read more)

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